The Alchemist's Secret, p.1Scott Mariani
To Marco, Miriam and Luca
‘Seek, my Brother, without becoming discouraged; the task is hard, I know, but to conquer without danger is to triumph without glory.’
The Alchemist Fulcanelli
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France, October 2001
Father Pascal Cambriel pulled his hat down tight and his coat collar up around his neck to protect against the lashing rain. The storm had ripped open the door to his hen-house and the birds were running amok in a panic. The sixty-four-year-old priest herded them back in with his stick, counting them as they went. What a night!
A flash of lightning illuminated the yard about him and the whole of the ancient stone village. Behind the wall of his cottage garden lay the tenth-century church of Saint-Jean with its simple cemetery, the crumbling headstones and ivy. The roofs of the houses and the rugged landscape beyond were brightly lit by the lightning flash that split the sky, then plunged back into darkness as the crash of the thunder followed a second later. Streaming with rainwater, Father Pascal pushed home the bolt of the hen-house door, locking the squawking birds safely in.
Another bright flash, and something else caught the priest’s eye as he turned to dash back to the cottage. He stopped dead with a gasp.
Visible for just an instant, a tall, thin, ragged figure stood watching him from across the low wall. Then it was gone.
Father Pascal rubbed his eyes with his wet hands. Had he imagined it? The lightning flashed again, and in the instant of flickering white light he saw the strange man running away across the edge of the village and into the woods.
The priest’s natural instinct after all these years as pastor to his community was to try immediately to help any soul in need. ‘Wait!’ he shouted over the wind. He ran out of his gate, limping slightly on his bad leg, and up the narrow lane between the houses, towards where the man had disappeared into the shadows of the trees.
Father Pascal soon found the stranger collapsed face down among the brambles and leaves at the edge of the woods. He was shaking violently and clutching at his skinny sides. In the wet darkness the priest could see that the man’s clothes were hanging in tatters. ‘Lord,’ he groaned in sympathy, instinctively taking off his coat to wrap around the stranger. ‘My friend, are you all right? What’s the matter? Please, let me help you.’
The stranger was talking to himself in a low voice, a garbled mutter mixed with sobbing, his shoulders heaving. Father Pascal laid the coat across the man’s back, feeling his own shirt instantly soaked with the pouring rain. ‘We must go inside,’ he said in a soft voice. ‘I have a fire, food and a bed. I will call Doctor Bachelard. Are you able to walk?’ He tried gently to turn the man over, to take his hands and help him up.
And recoiled at what he saw in the next lightning flash. The man’s tattered shirt soaked in blood. The long, deep gashes that had been cut into his emaciated body. Cuts on cuts. Wounds that had healed and been slashed open again.
Pascal stared, hardly believing what he was seeing. These weren’t random slashes, but patterns, shapes, symbols, crusted in blood.
‘Who did this to you, my son?’ The priest studied the stranger’s face. It was wizened, gaunt almost to the point of ghoulishness. How far had he wandered in this state?
In a cracked voice the man muttered something: ‘Omnis qui bibit hanc aquam…’
Father Pascal realized with amazement that the man was speaking to him in Latin. ‘Water?’ he asked. ‘You want some water?’
The man went on mumbling, staring at him with wild eyes, clawing at his sleeve. ‘…si fidem addit, salvus erit.’
Pascal frowned. Something about faith, salvation? He’s talking nonsense, he thought. The poor soul was deranged. Then the lightning flashed again, almost directly overhead, and as the thunder roared an instant later he saw with a start that the man’s bloody fingers were wrapped tightly around the hilt of a knife.
It was a knife like no other he’d ever seen, a cruciform dagger with an ornate gold hilt set with glittering jewels. The long, slim blade was dripping with blood.
It was then that the priest understood what the stranger had done to himself. He’d carved these wounds into his own flesh.
‘What have you done?’ Father Pascal’s mind swam with horror. The stranger watched him, rising to his knees, his bloody mud-streaked face suddenly lit up by another flash of lightning. His eyes were empty, lost, as though his mind was in some other place. He fingered the ornate weapon.
For a few moments Pascal Cambriel was quite convinced that this man was going to kill him. So here it was at last. Death. What would it bring? Some kind of continued existence, he was sure about that, even though its exact nature was unclear to him.
He’d often wondered how he would face death when the time came. He’d hoped that his deep religious faith would prepare him to meet whatever end God intended for him with serenity and composure. Now, though, the prospect of that cold steel sinking into his flesh turned his legs to water.
In that moment, when there was no longer any doubt in his mind that he was going to die, he thought about how he’d be remembered. Had he been a good man? Had his been a worthy life?
Lord, give me strength.
The madman stared in rapt fascination at the dagger in his hand, and back at the helpless priest, and he began to laugh–a low gurgling cackle that rose up to a hysterical shriek. ‘Igne natura renovatur integra!’ He screamed the words over and over again, and Pascal Cambriel watched in terror as he started feverishly slicing the blade into his own neck.
Somewhere near Cadiz, Southern Spain
Ben Hope dropped from the wall and landed silent
He did a last press-check of the 9mm Browning, making sure there was a round in the chamber and that the pistol was ready for action. He quietly clicked the safety on and holstered it. Took the black ski mask from his pocket and pulled it over his head.
The semi-derelict house was in darkness. Following the plan given to him by his informant, Ben skirted the wall, half-expecting a sudden blaze of security lights that never came. He reached the rear entrance. Everything was as he’d been told. The lock on the door put up little resistance, and after a few seconds he crept inside.
He followed a darkened corridor, went through a room and then another, the thin light-beam from his pistol-mounted compact LED torch picking out mouldy walls and rotten floorboards, heaps of garbage on the floor. He came to the door that was shut from the outside with a padlock and hasp. When he shone his light on the lock he saw it was an amateur job. The hasp was only screwed to the worm-eaten wood. In under a minute, working in silence, he had the lock off the door and went inside, slowly and cautiously so as not to alarm the sleeping boy.
The eleven-year-old Julián Sanchez stirred and groaned as Ben crouched down by the side of the makeshift bunk. ‘Tranquilo, soy un amigo’, he whispered in the boy’s ear. He flashed the Browning’s light in Julián’s eyes. Virtually no pupil reflex–he’d been drugged.
The room stank of damp and filth. A rat, which had been up on the little table at the foot of the bed eating the remains of a frugal meal in a tin dish, jumped down and scampered away across the floor. Ben gently turned the boy over on the filthy sheets. His hands were tied with a plastic cable tie that had bitten into his flesh.
Julián groaned again as Ben carefully slipped a slim knife through the cable ties and cut his arms free. The boy’s left hand was bound with a rag, encrusted with filth and dried blood. Ben hoped that it was just the one finger that had been removed. He had seen a lot worse.
The ransom demand had been for two million Euros in used notes. As a token of their sincerity the kidnappers had sent a severed finger in the mail. One foolish move, such as calling the police, had said the voice on the phone, and the next parcel would contain more bits. Maybe another finger, maybe his balls. Maybe his head.
Emilio and Maria Sanchez had taken the threats the right way–seriously. Raising the two million wasn’t an issue for the wealthy Malaga couple, but they knew perfectly well that paying the ransom would in no way guarantee that their boy wasn’t coming home in a bodybag. The terms of their kidnap insurance stipulated that the negotiations must at all times go through official channels. That meant police involvement–and it would be signing Julián’s death warrant to bring the cops in on this. They’d needed to find a viable alternative to even the odds in favour of Julián’s safe return.
That was where Ben Hope entered the equation, if you knew the right number to call.
Ben rolled the groggy child out of the bunk and hefted his limp body over his left shoulder. A dog had started barking from somewhere behind the house. He heard stirrings, a door opening somewhere. Holding the silenced Browning out ahead of him as a torch, he carried Julián back through the shadowy corridors.
Three men, his informant had told him. One was passed out drunk most of the time but he’d have to watch out for the other two. Ben believed the informant, as he usually believed a man with a gun to his head.
A door opened ahead of him and a voice shouted in the darkness. Ben’s light settled on the figure of a man, unshaven, his body rippling with fat, dressed in shorts and a ragged T-shirt. His face was contorted with the bright beam shining in his eyes. In his hands was a sawn-off shotgun, the fat twin muzzles slung down low and pointing at Ben’s stomach.
The Browning instantly coughed twice through its long sound suppressor and the thin LED beam followed the arc of the man’s body as it slumped dead to the floor. The man lay still with two neat holes in the centre of the T-shirt, blood already spreading out beneath him. Without thinking about it, Ben did what he’d been trained to do in these circumstances, stand over the body and finish the job with a precautionary head shot.
The second man, alerted by the sound, came running down a flight of stairs, a bobbing torch in front of him. Ben fired at the light. There was a short scream and the man crashed headlong down the stairs before he’d had a chance to fire his revolver. The gun slid along the floor. Ben strode over to him and made sure he wasn’t getting up again. Then he paused for thirty seconds, waiting for a sound.
The third man never appeared. He hadn’t woken up.
He wasn’t going to.
With Julián unconscious over his shoulder, Ben walked through the house to a sordid kitchen. His pistol-light flashed on a running cockroach, followed its scuttling path across the room and settled on an old cooker that was connected to a tall steel gas bottle. He gently rested Julián in a chair. Kneeling down in the darkness beside the cooker he cut the rubber pipe from the back of the appliance with his knife, and used an old beer crate to jam the end of the pipe against the side of the cold cylinder. He opened the wheel-valve on top of the cylinder a quarter-turn, flipped his lighter and the trickle of hissing gas ignited in a small yellow flame. Then he opened the valve full on. The flickering flame became a roaring jet of fierce blue fire that licked and curled aggressively up the side of the cylinder, blackening the steel.
Three muted rounds from the Browning and the twisted padlock fell from the front gates. Ben was counting the seconds as he carried the boy away from the house towards the trees.
They were on the edge of the woods by the time the house went up. The sudden flash and a massive unfolding orange fireball lit up the trees and Ben’s face as he turned to see the kidnappers’ hideout blown to pieces. Flaming bits of wreckage dropped all around. A thick column of blood-red incandescent smoke rose up into the starry sky.
The car was hidden just the other side of the trees. ‘You’re going home,’ he told Julián.
The western Irish coast, four days later
Ben woke up with a start. For a few moments he lay there, disorientated and confused as reality slowly pieced itself together. Next to him, on the bedside table, his phone was shrilling. He reached out his arm for the handset. Clumsy from his long sleep, his groping hand knocked over the empty glass and the whisky bottle that stood by the phone. The glass smashed across the wooden floor. The bottle hit the boards with a heavy clunk and rolled away into a heap of discarded clothes.
He cursed, sitting up in the rumpled bed. His head was throbbing and his throat was dry. The taste of stale whisky was still in his mouth.
He picked up the phone. ‘Hello?’ he said, or tried to say. His hoarse croak gave way to a fit of coughing. He closed his eyes, and felt that unpleasantly familiar feeling of being sucked spinning backwards down a long, dark tunnel, making his head feel light and his stomach queasy.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the voice on the other end of the line. A man’s voice, clipped English accent. ‘Have I got the right number? I’m looking for a Mr Benjamin Hope.’ The voice had a note of disapproval that irked Ben immediately despite his fuzzy head.
He coughed again, wiped his face with the back of his hand and tried to unglue his eyes. ‘Benedict,’ he muttered, then cleared his throat and spoke more clearly. ‘That’s Benedict Hope. Speaking…What time do you call this?’ he added irritably.
The voice sounded even more displeased, as though its impression of Ben had just been confirmed. ‘Well, ten-thirty actually.’
Ben sank his head into his hand. He looked at his watch. Sunlight was shining through the gap in the curtains. He began to focus. ‘OK. Sorry. I had a busy night.’
‘Can I help y
‘Mr Hope, my name is Alexander Villiers. I’m calling on behalf of my employer Mr Sebastian Fairfax. I’ve been instructed to tell you that Mr Fairfax would like to retain your services.’ A pause. ‘Apparently you’re one of the very best private detectives.’
‘Then you’ve been misinformed. I’m not a detective. I find lost people.’
The voice went on. ‘Mr Fairfax would like to see you. Can we arrange an appointment? Naturally, we’ll collect you and pay you for your trouble.’
Ben sat up straight against the oak headboard and reached for his Gauloises and Zippo. He trapped the pack between his knees and plucked a cigarette out. He thumbed the wheel of the lighter and lit up. ‘Sorry, I’m not available. I’ve just finished an assignment and I’m taking a break.’
‘I understand,’ said Villiers. ‘I’m also instructed to inform you that Mr Fairfax is willing to offer a generous fee.’
‘It’s not the money.’
‘Then perhaps I should tell you that this is a matter of life or death. We’ve been told you may be our only chance. Won’t you at least come and meet Mr Fairfax? When you hear what he has to say, you may change your mind.’
‘Thank you for agreeing,’ said Villiers after a pause. ‘Please expect to be picked up in the next few hours. Goodbye.’
‘Hold on. Where?’
‘We know where you are, Mr Hope.’
Ben went for his daily run along the deserted beach, with just the water and a few circling, screeching seabirds for company. The whispering ocean was calm, and the sun was cooler now that autumn was on its way.
After his mile or so up and down the smooth sand, his hangover just a faint echo, he picked a path down to the rocky cove that was his favourite part of the beach. Nobody ever came here except him. He was a man who liked solitude, even though his job was seeking to reunite people with those they’d lost. This was where he liked to come sometimes when he wasn’t away working. It was a place where he could forget everything, where the world and all its troubles could slip out of his mind for a few precious moments. Even the house was out of sight, hidden behind the steep bank of clay and boulders and tufty grass. He cared little for the six-bedroomed house–it was far too large for just him and Winnie, his elderly housekeeper–and he had only bought it because it came complete with this quarter mile stretch of private beach, his sanctuary.
The Alchemist's Secret by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes